A discovery from researchers at the University of Waterloo and the University of British Columbia has revealed what they describe as a “cosmic glitch” in the universe’s gravity. This unexpected phenomenon might explain some strange behaviors observed on a cosmic scale, hinting at possible flaws in Albert Einstein’s revered theory of general relativity.

For over a century, Einstein’s theory of general relativity has been the cornerstone of our understanding of gravity. It has stood the test of time, withstanding rigorous experiments and countless observations. General relativity posits that gravity affects not just the three physical dimensions, but also the fourth dimension—time. It has guided scientific advancements, from the Big Bang theory to capturing images of black holes.

However, when researchers delve into gravity on a cosmic scale—like that of galaxy clusters and beyond—they encounter discrepancies that general relativity does not seem to account for. It’s almost as if gravity itself starts to deviate from Einstein’s predictions, explains Robin Wen, the lead author of the study and a recent graduate in Mathematical Physics from Waterloo. We’re calling this inconsistency a ‘cosmic glitch’: gravity becomes about one percent weaker when dealing with distances in the billions of light years.

For over two decades, scientists and astronomers have tried to create a mathematical model that resolves these apparent contradictions with general relativity. The University of Waterloo, with its rich history of groundbreaking gravitational research and interdisciplinary collaboration between applied mathematicians and astrophysicists, has been at the forefront of this quest.

Almost a century ago, astronomers discovered that our universe is expanding, says Niayesh Afshordi, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Waterloo and a researcher at the Perimeter Institute. The farther galaxies are, the faster they seem to be moving, approaching the speed limit set by Einstein’s theory. Our findings suggest that at those scales, Einstein’s theory may also be lacking.

To address this inconsistency, the research team proposed a new mathematical model that modifies and extends Einstein’s original formulas. This adjustment helps resolve the inconsistency in certain cosmological measurements without disrupting the successful applications of general relativity. Think of it as a kind of footnote to Einstein’s theory, Wen adds. Once you reach a cosmic scale, terms and conditions apply.

The implications of this discovery are profound. It suggests that our current understanding of the universe’s gravitational laws may be incomplete, and there may be more to learn about the fundamental forces that shape our cosmos. Afshordi emphasizes the potential of this new model, stating, This could be the first hint of a cosmic puzzle we’re just beginning to solve across space and time.


University of Waterloo | Robin Y. Wen, Lukas T. Hergt, et al., A cosmic glitch in gravity. Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, 03(2024)045, DOI 10.1088/1475–7516/2024/03/045

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